7 Off the Beaten Path Must-Sees in the Basque Country

27 01 2015

So you´re coming to the Basque Country because you want to visit Donostia-San Sebastian, the Guggenheim and try some of the famous pintxos. Good for you!…but you´re missing many other great visits that go unseen for most visitors. Here´s a list of seven of them:

1- The Transporter (or Hanging) Bridge of Vizcaya, that links Portugalete and Las Arenas (metro Areeta). A unique construction, running 365/24, built in 1893, that can transport 6 cars and quite a good number of people on its two barges (it resembles a catamaran, somehow). Patented in the Basque Country, it´s the very first one and the most beautiful of all. You can take the lift all the way up and cross it from side to side, with incredible views. Always a delightful surprise to visitors.

Another view The Transporter Bridge

2- The Rolls Royce museum Torre Loizaga, http://www.torreloizaga.com, the biggest and best Rolls Royce car collection in the world. Kept in a beautiful castle about 30kms from Bilbao, the owner (that died in 2009) built this collection throughout his adventurous life and also reconstructed the tower castle. A real must for car lovers, as it also has some Ferraris, Cadillacs, Lamborghinis,…

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3- Pozalagua Caves, one of the three caves with the highest concentration of eccentric stalactites in the world. Located in the unspoilt green valleys of western Bizkaia, they can be visited and the experience of seeing those weird shapes is just amazing. A short, beautiful video on them on this link.

4- The Basilica of Loyola (or Loiola), located in this neighbourhood of Azpeitia (Gipuzkoa, near San Sebastian). Right by it, the castle where St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the religious order of the Jesuits, was born. The castle is kept as it was during the time St Ignatius lived there, and the Basilica is a great example of a 18th century church, with its huge central dome. Surrounded by mountains and in a green valley, this visit is another must.

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4- Vitoria, the capital city of the Basque Country. Its Old Quarter, called The Almond due to its shape, and with a medieval Jewish quarter, is beautiful and contains amazing centuries old buildings. The Cathedral of Santa María, “open for repairs”, offers a great visit that shows you the reconstruction of this 13th century cathedral. And don´t forget about the pintxos in Vitoria!!

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5- Labraza, declared the Best Walled Town in the world in 2008, and the smallest fortified town in the Basque Country, is a beautiful example of a well preserved medieval village, off the beaten path and unspoilt by tourism. Just 60 houses in total and the church of San Miguel, surrounded by the fortified walls. A must during your visit to Rioja.

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6- San Juan de Gaztelugatxe…becoming more and more popular, but still massively unvisited and remaining unknown for most foreign visitors. 300 stairs lead to the top, where you´ll find a church and have to ring the bell…Meaning “the castle in the rock”, it was formerly a castle used for defense against foreign invasions. Amazing.

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7- Ainhoa, probably the most beautiful village in the French Basque Country…it´s cemetery, right by the church, deserves a visit, as well as main street, surrounded by beautiful Basque style houses in perfect condition.

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A very short list, as the Basque Country is full of hidden, unspoilt places that are always a great way to experience our real way of life and visit our favorite places. More to come soon…





8 days on a Basque Gastro Tour and in good company…beat it! – Part One

26 11 2014

I´ve had the great pleasure to enjoy a gastronomic tour in the Basque Country with a couple of Hong Kong friends…and moreover when the weather at the end of November has been incredibly warm and sunny 7 of the 8 days. Regrettably, some of the restaurants we had chosen as a first option were closed for holidays, but having a great meal has never been a problem in the Basque Country.

Just an hour after arrival, we arrived in Asador Etxebarri, one Michelin star, in the beautiful town of Axpe. The tasting menu consists of a wide array of dishes, all based on the mastering of the grill by Bittor Arginzoniz, the cook and owner. He has develop his own grilling technique and instruments, and so he´s able to grill an oyster, baby eels or a boneless steak. Product is mostly local or from his own garden. Service is friendly, close and very efficient. Two and a half hours of wonders in your mouth, at a reasonable price for a Michelin star if we compare it to those in the US or France, for example. Some pics:

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Next day we went to a very special place in the slopes of the hills surrounding Bilbao, the Kate Zaharra (in Basque, the Old Chain). A classic in Bilbao, it probably has the best views of town. When you enter, they offer you to visit the cellar, where you can choose your wine and enjoy some fresh cut ibérico ham, as well as some anchovies or other delicacies. Then you go upstairs to your table, where you can taste great grilled fish, clams, the freshest seafood…Product, product and product, and a lovely aftermeal upstairs where you can enjoy a drink of your favorite spirit and awesome views of the city.

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A visit to a medieval castle in the outskirts of Bilbao as well as to the amazing Old Town marked a perfect day for the three of us…

More to come…





Some Funny Questions From Visitors to The Basque Country

23 10 2014

It´s been a few years now working as a guide in the Basque Country, and I have to say that 99.99% of my guests have always been very nice and polite. With some of them I´ve made friends and we exchange emails regularly (Hi Barb!) and with some others I´ve had the pleasure to see they return again to this beautiful region. Most of my visitors are foreigners, mainly from English speaking countries (US, Australia, Canada, Britain,…) and sometimes the information they have about our way of life and culture is not very comprehensive. So I´ve received a lot of questions about the Basque Country, and some of them have been very funny:

1- “I do know that marriages in the Basque Country have always been arranged by the parents, but do you still keep this habit? Your marriage was also arranged, young man?”

My answer was: “No madam, it was only until we joined the European Union, then they prohibited this ancient custom, much to our regret”.

2- (On a wine tasting experience, when tasting red wine): “Oh my God, mine is not sweet!!, I must have taken the wrong glass”

3- More on wine tasting in the Rioja region: “Oh, so you don´t offer California wine here?”

4- (asking for a coffee with milk -café con leche- in a cafeteria in San Sebastián): “Do you pasteurize your milk?” And on seeing my puzzled face..”Hum, you may not know what “pasteurizing” means, sorry” . And then she explained it to me.
5- “So this is an anchovie, look Diane, it´s actually a FISH!!!”, on looking at a spectacular anchovie pintxo with a real anchovie on it (he thought of them as that weird thing they put on pizzas.
6- “Do you pay taxes or is everything government owned and paid?”
7- “I can pay with US Dollars everywhere, right?”
8-“Do kids go to school every day?” (a very kind lady, I answered “yes, except on weekends, summer and Christmas….”)
9- “I´d like to see the running of the bulls”…”Yes sir, but that is in Pamplona on July and it´s September”. “Oh, I thought they ran all year round…”

10- “On Mondays (day when many restaurants are closed), you don´t go to work because you can´t eat anywhere, right?”

11- “Why can´t I pay a glass of wine with a VISA?” (most bars in Spain don´t accept credit cards, and you never ever leave your visa to the bartender in case they do…trust is the word). Important to know that a glass of wine in Spain just costs 1.50eur approx…

12- “How come there´re so many kids on the street? Shouldn´t they be home watching TV?”

13- “Wow, a glass of water with no ice on it!! How can you drink it?” (or a Coke, mostly served with just an ice cube or two)

14-  “I can´t eat cheese” “Well, you should have told me earlier, you just had two pieces of Idiazabal sheep cheese” “Wow, that was cheese?? I meant pizza cheese, I didn´t know there was hard cheese!”.

And so many others that make this job a very exciting and interesting one!

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The One and Only Transporter Bridge of Portugalete

25 07 2014

This is one of the most pleasant  surprises for most of my guests when coming to the Basque Country. I tend not to inform in advance about what we are going to visit, this way I believe the visit has the added value of the unexpected. And so here it is…after a 2´drive from the cruise port, or just 20´from Bilbao, the unique Puente Colgante (officially named Puente Bizkaia) appears in front of us. At first sight, they don´t understand what´s going on: “OK, an iron bridge…what else?” and the look of disappointment is kind of worrying. But then the suspended barge starts crossing the river to get to the other side, and right there is when they open wide their eyes and start taking pictures and getting closer to the Bridge.The Transporter Bridge

It runs 365/24 and has already been used for over 650 million people in its 121 years of existence (inaugurated on 1893). Designed and patented by Alberto de Palacio, a local engineer (disciple of Eiffel), its main use was to link both margins of the river without interrupting the constant flow of ships transporting iron from the mines on the nearby mountains.

 

 

It allows the transport of passengers and 6 cars, apart from bikes and motorbikes. It´s been recently painted (color was chosen by popular vote) and a full maintenance work has been carried out to make sure that it´ll be running for another 100 years or more. Mainly used by locals and not designed as a tourist attraction, it has been awarded the UNESCO World Heritage Monument, a fact that has increased the number of visitors to this incredible bridge. There´s an elevator that takes you to the upper walkway, with great views and some explanations on the origins of the Bridge.The barge

A ship crossing under the bridgeA must on your visit to the Basque Country…and close to the beach of Ereaga and the beautiful old fishing port of Algorta…

 

 

 





An Update on my 2010 post, “Some Places You Wouldn´t Go in Bilbao if Not Told”

8 07 2014

Time surely goes fast…I still remember when the Guggenheim was being built and when we took pictures of tourists, awed at the fact that there were actually people visiting Bilbao!! Well, things have changed a lot since then: Bilbao has turned into a wonderful, livable, lively town, great for foodies and a must-see from an architectural point of view. My favorite places have also changed from my 2010 post, and so I also have new likes and dislikes. Let´s talk about 9 places that I love and that you may miss as a tourist, as they´re a bit off-the-beaten-path:

1) Mercado de la Ribera, the biggest covered market in Europe, completely re-built, and where my guests love to take pics of the fresh fish at the fishmongers´, of the Ibérico ham hanging from the ceilings, of the wide range of local cheeses and of the farmers that offer their locally produced vegetables (without any “organic” label on them…no need for this kind of marketing)…

2) Alhóndiga, the former wine warehouse located on the very center of Bilbao, now a public cultural and leisure center. Its interior has been singularly designed by acclaimed designer Philippe Starck, and it has a great rooftop bar where you can enjoy great music and views.Alhóndiga rooftop bar

3) Diputación Street, right behind the beautiful building of the provincial government or Diputación, in the Gran Vía (main street). Great pintxos in El Globo, good cocktails at El Embrujo, wonderful ibérico ham at La Viña, excellent steaks at Santa Rosalía…

4) Henao and Heros streets area, close to renovated Jado square (the one with the lions fountain in the center), where new bars have added life to this beautiful resident area. Mr Wonderful, Coppola pizzeria (in Barrainkua st), Singular, Residence, El Txoko de Gabi, Las Cepas…excellent pintxos and wine route, as well as good live music.

5) Bacaicoa bar, in Unamuno square, Old Town…the best pintxo of grilled mushrooms in town.

6) A ride on the Begoña or Iturribide public elevators, in the Old Town, for the very best views of the Old Town of Bilbao from above. Very cheap and a great experience as a local.View from Iturribide elevator, Old Town

7) A ride on the Funicular of Artxanda, from Castaños street…definitely the best views of the whole city from above…just turn left when you get up to get to the view point.

8) Santa María street in the Old Town on a Friday evening, for alternative pintxos bars and restaurants and great street atmosphere (we love having pintxos outside bars, rather than inside)

9) Doña Casilda Park, or “park of the ducks”, as we used to name it when kids…lovely public gardens in Bilbao, right behind the Meliá hotel. Perfect place to relax and enjoy the coolness of its shady trees and pond.Doña Casilda Park





Small family Wineries in Rioja—A Different Approach to Wine Culture

3 07 2014

Marqués de Riscal winerySo you love wine and therefore you´re coming to the best wine region in the world, Rioja. It belongs to three political regions (La Rioja, Basque Country and Navarre) and has three distinctive wine areas (Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja), each one produces wine with different characteristics and personality. Rioja Alavesa is the region where top quality wines are produced, and here you can visit many worldwide famous wineries, such as Marqués de Riscal (with its famous Frank Gehry´s building) in Elciego, Muga, CVNE and Rioja Alta in Haro, , Viña Real, Remelluri in Labastida, Ysios in Laguardia, Baigorri, etc….

 

Francisco extracting his wine from the barrelBut there are hundreds of small family wineries that are not visited by massive tourism. Places that welcome visitors and offer also a guided visit to show their family business and their traditional wine making processes.

 

In a town like Villabuena de Alava, for example, there are more wineries than inhabitants (300 people live there), and it´s a similar thing in most towns in the area. Most families own a small private winery where they produce wine for friends or a reduced number of visitors. It´s also true that many are semi-abandoned or falling apart due to not being used anymore. It´s a real pity, but I guess sometimes it´s hard work to keep this business going. So if you have the chance when visiting Rioja, don´t miss the opportunity to visit at least a small family winery to see how wine has been produced throughout several family generations. (Pictures here belong to a 17th century winery, no name outside, that produces an excellent wine and it´s still running by the retired owner)Old wine bottles in the cellarEntrance to the cellar





How To Eat Pintxos Like A Local in the Basque Country

23 06 2014

Given the increasing number of tourists (don´t worry, the Basque Country is still a heaven for those that feel comfortable far from the madding crowds) that come to this gourmet´s paradise in search of the best pintxos in the world, please find below a few suggestions on how to eat pintxos like a local. Having experienced and seen lots of guests on my pintxos tours at a loss when faced with a counter full of these delicacies, I feel this post as a must for those that want to do it right:

1) Peek into the bar and take a look at its counter. If you don´t like what´s shown there, just look for another bar. There´re plenty.Barra Irrintzi 1

2) Yes, I know that in your native country you don´t have as many bars as we do here, and you tend to spend your time and money in just one for the whole evening. No, we don´t do it that way. We visit as many bars as possible.

3) We like to have ONE pintxo per bar, maximum TWO, and ONE drink.Ham and tomato on bread

4) We don´t have pintxos meals or anything of the kind. It´s an appetizer and not a meal. It´s meant to dilute the amount of alcohol in blood and facilitate conversation while standing close to the counter.

5) STANDING, we have them standing, we don´t sit down for pintxos. Please. Stand. Talk. Enjoy. But don´t seat.

6) Never, ever, accept the plate handed by the waiter. We locals just grab them with our hand from the counter. Or order them from the list on the wall to have them made on order.

7) We pay based on an honour system, that is, we tell the waiter how many we´ve had and he believes us. We don´t lie, ever. The toothpick thing (counting toothpicks as a proof of how many pintxos you´ve had) is nowadays an urban legend.

8) ALL pintxos are good, all taste great. Ibérico ham is good for your health and great for your heart and arteries. And yes, those fresh looking things are real anchovies, not that thing you have on pizza.Pintxos

9) There´s no such thing as “pintxos bars”. 99% of bars offer pintxos, all bars are “pintxos bars”.

10) Order a “zurito” (a third of a glass of beer), a “rioja” (a glass of red wine), a “blanco” (white wine) or a “cider” (natural cider, not fizzy). Ignore Coke or any other sweet drinks, they are not meant for pintxos.

11) Enjoy the atmosphere, ask the waiter about the pintxos, talk to strangers, throw napkins on the floor (YES!!!), pay on leaving, try different things, get a bit tipsy, enjoy this wonderful pintxos culture…pintxos counter